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Thistles


ɵ ɵ ɵ


a novella by


Kate McNeil









Twintype Books

Dedication


This story is dedicated to indie authors and the readers who support them.


Chapter One


Destroying someone’s life could be remarkably cathartic.

It was a thought I turned over in my mind as the night slipped slowly by, comfortable and warm on the deep soft couch in, what had been up until very recently, Parker and Shane’s apartment. Now it was just Parker’s apartment, and if Shane had any brain cells whatsoever, he’d cut his losses and be glad that we’d only tossed his stuff in the apartment complex dumpster without lighting it on fire first.

I sighed a little, pulling the heavy quilt that Gran had made while she was pregnant with Sarah, Parker’s mom, higher up around my shoulders. Parker had of course offered to share the king-size bed in the apartment’s one bedroom, but I told her that I’d be tossing and turning all night, and didn’t want to keep her awake. I could see the questions she wanted to ask reflected in the eyes that knew me inside and out, but as such, she knew better than to push me. Instead she created a warm welcoming nest for me to snuggle into, then gave me a long hard hug before heading to bed.

I could tell that the quilt had been lovingly and carefully stored away in a linen closet: the smell of the lavender sachet that Sarah Chase had grown, dried and sewn herself was faint but undeniable as it surrounded me. It was like a ghostly hug that gave me permission to cry a little more, even though each tear was like a drop of acid burning my heart away, the contents of the past few years sealed firmly behind locks and keys that were melted into something cold and gray, taking up residence in the farthest corner of my heart.


Parker and I sat at the kitchen table the next morning, looking like survivors of the zombie apocalypse. I hadn’t slept much at all and, from the looks of her, Parker hadn’t either. We sipped our coffee silently, lost in our own thoughts, until a brisk knock at the door shook both of us out of our stupor. Parker shuffled over to unlock it, admitting the tiniest tornado in South Carolina.

“Well there you are, I was starting to…Vivian! Oh my stars! Oh my…” In the next second, I was wrapped in Gran’s arms. Just like being under the quilt the night before, I felt another piece of myself come back home.

“Hi, Gran.”

“Oh sweetpea, I just…why didn’t you…oh my goodness!” Seeing Gran this flustered was rare, and Parker was grinning as she came back over and picked up her coffee cup.

“Surprise!”

“Oh Parker, did you know she was coming home?”

“No, Gran, I swear I didn’t.”

“It was a last minute kind of thing.” I smiled down at the woman who had loved, scolded and spoiled both of us our entire lives. She may have been only Parker’s grandmother biologically, but she was Gran to both of us.

“Well hallelujah, I was starting to think the Army didn’t grant leaves anymore and that we’d never see you again! How long are you in town for?”

Only years of practice kept the pain her question prompted from showing on my face. “I’m actually home for good.”

I saw Parker’s head snap up out of the corner of my eye, but I kept my focus on Gran.

“For good…oh my…Vivian Carmichael, you’re going to make me cry! We’ve missed you so much!”

“I’ve missed you too.”

“I was coming over to ask Parker and Shane if they’d like to come over for dinner tonight, but since you’re home, I’ll make all of your favorites!”

Parker cleared her throat. “Yeah, ah, about Shane…”

Gran swung around to face her, blinked, and then threw her hands up in the air. “Oh double hallelujah, you finally kicked that no-good bastard to the curb, didn’t you?”

I couldn’t help the snort of laughter that erupted from inside me. Parker crossed her arms. “Yep, kicked him to the curb, literally. All his stuff is in the dumpster out back. Unless he snuck back in the middle of the night to fish it out.”

“This old lady’s heart can only take so many wonderful surprises, this is like Christmas ten times over. Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

“I didn’t know you hated him, Gran.”

“Well, as long as he made you happy, he was fine, dearie.” Prim Gran was back. “But he hasn’t made you happy in a long, long time. We could all see that. But it wasn’t our place to tell you so.”

“For future reference, feel free to tell me so in the future. Would you like some coffee?”

“No thank you, I’m on my way to the market, they’ve got crab legs on sale and I’ve got to get there before they run out. But I’ll expect you both at my house at 5pm sharp.” She turned around and wrapped me in another tight hug. “Vivian, I’m so happy you’re home. We’ve missed you so, so much. Please don’t leave us ever again.”

Another stab of pain that I forced down. The CIA had made it very clear I wouldn’t be leaving the country for at least three years, so that was one promise I knew I could keep. “I won’t.”

“We’ll catch up over dinner.” She patted my cheek affectionately and then turned to wrap her granddaughter in another tight hug. “And if that no-good rat Shane comes sniffing around again…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll have Vivian put him in the dumpster out back.”

“That’s right. All right, dearies, I’ll see you in a little while!”

She bustled out the door, her entire visit lasting no more than a few minutes. When I turned to Parker, the smile on my face was finally genuine. “God I’ve missed her.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think it was possible, but she and I have been even closer since Mom died.” Parker picked up our empty mugs and set them in the kitchen sink. “So…sounds like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Are we staying in or going out?”

“We’re staying in because you need to call a locksmith and get the locks changed.”

“Why do…oh. Oh yeah, good point.” She gave me a crooked smile. “Back in town not even a day and you’re already back to taking care of me.”

“We take care of each other,” I said firmly. “Listen, can I borrow an outfit for today? I’m going to need to go shopping, but that can wait.”

“Yeah, of course.” I knew she was dying of curiosity, considering I’d shown up at her apartment yesterday in a rumpled little black dress and carrying a couple of cheap bags I’d picked up at the airport. All of my clothes, along with boxes of jewelry, were literally a world away, hanging in a closet in Bulgaria. If they hadn’t already erased all evidence that I’d ever been there.

“Thanks.”

“No problem, grab whatever you want.”

“I’m going to hop in the shower, you call a locksmith. Then, later,” I took a deep breath, “Let’s talk.”

She nodded, knowing there was no further need for questions between us. That connection we’d had since the day we were both born was as strong as though I hadn’t been gone for years.

It was as strong as though I’d never been gone at all.


Living in Bulgaria hadn’t changed my appreciation for Southern cuisine, and after the locksmith left, Parker and I headed to what had been our favorite seafood restaurant. Shane had hated fish, so it was a treat for both of us.

It was right on the water, and a soft breeze stirred the salt-scented air around us, the sun warm on our shoulders. I hadn’t realized I’d missed it so badly, and told Parker as much.

“I’ve always heard that travel will do that to you.” We clinked glasses of sweet tea. “Here’s to my best friend being home again. And to her not leaving again.”

I could hear the question in her words and took a deep breath, looking around the restaurant quickly. It was second nature. “Yeah, I’m home for good. I didn’t leave under the best of circumstances.”

Her eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

“Yes…and no.” I looked around the restaurant again. “Something bad happened, so I’m no longer employed by them.”

“And you had to leave so fast you couldn’t even pack clothes?”

God she was sharp. “I didn’t know I was coming back until I was on the way. But everything I had there…it was just stuff. I didn’t have anything personal.”

Our waiter came over with our appetizers and Parker smiled up at him, then waited before asking her next question. “Did you leave anyone?”

My stomach churned with that one. “Yeah. I can’t really talk about him just yet…”

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” she replied quickly. “I’m just worried about you. You look so different.”

I played with my straw. “Well, I’ve been gone a long time. Almost eight years with only short little trips back.”

“That’s not what I mean.” I could tell Parker was choosing her words carefully. “You look like you’re in pain.”

That was the understatement of the century. “His name is David,” I finally said softly. “And he’s the only regret I have…that they made me leave him behind too.”

“Oh V,” Parker wanted to hug me, but was trying to play it cool in public. “Is he…still there?”

I grinned a little. “I don’t know. He could be sitting right here in this restaurant and we wouldn’t know it.”

She looked puzzled. “Well…whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here. Just let me know.”

We intentionally changed the subject after that, and I felt myself slowly relaxing a little. Parker did most of the talking since I wasn’t allowed to share the vast majority of what I’d been up to for the past few years.

“So the landlord’s asshole son basically gave her six months’ notice, which is insane. But Gran is taking it as a sign that maybe it’s time to retire.”

I shook my head. Black Eyed Susans, Gran’s flower shop, had been a Charleston institution for almost fifty years. “I can’t imagine Gran retiring.”

“Yeah, she can’t either. Especially after Mom died, that shop has been her life. I used to have to kick her out so she could have a couple of days off, and I’d cover for her, but she’s starting to do more social stuff. You’d be amazed at what senior citizens get up to in their ladies clubs.”

“Well, that’s good.”

Parker shrugged. “It’s funny how things line up…I’m going to be looking for a new job too. The company I work for is outsourcing a lot of their work, so they’re laying a bunch of us off in a month. At least they were nice enough to give us all a heads-up.”

“So that’s all three of us scanning the classified ads.” I sighed and sat back in my chair. “I wonder if this is a sign from the universe.”

“What do you mean?”

I shrugged. “All three of us needing gainful employment, and all three of us at a crossroads of sorts. I can’t help but wonder if we should look at it as a hint that we should start fresh.”

She perked up. “I’m game. Any suggestions?”

“After what we did to Shane’s blog and email yesterday? We’re meant to be hackers, obviously.”

We both laughed. “That felt so good,” Parker sighed. “Not just kicking his ass to the curb, in retrospect I should have done that a long time ago. But working with you, and seeing everything you had to teach me…that was amazing. I know it’s nothing like what you…you know. But it was like putting together the biggest best Sodoku puzzle ever. I kinda want to do it again.”

I smiled wistfully, knowing all too well how she felt. “Hey, I just provided the technical know-how, you did everything else.”

“No way, no how. I literally just had a gut feeling, you did all the work.”

“Someone had to teach me once too, you know.”

“I wish the hacker thing was feasible,” she laughed again. “I really enjoyed it.”

“Now you know why I did what I did for so long.”

“Oh yeah, totally. Was it really like that?”

“Uh, no. It’s nothing like the movies. You’d be amazed how boring it can be at times. But yeah, when you’re on a roll…there’s nothing like it.”

“Maybe you could do consulting work?” Parker suggested, finishing the last of her tea.

“I can’t refer to my credentials, so that’s out.”

She frowned and I understood her confusion; anyone that hadn’t signed their lives away didn’t understand that I couldn’t even acknowledge my employment, let alone use it as a reference. “You’re not allowed to talk about it at all?”

“Nope.” I played with the last of my entree. “It’s a big black spot on my resume, which is going to make job-hunting a bit difficult.”

“No time like the present for self-employment, then. I’d hire you.”

I flicked my crumpled straw wrapper at her. “To do what?”

“You know, spy stuff.” She mouthed the last two words. “You have the know-how, you should totally take advantage of it. There’s a tv show on about it here right now, and I could totally see it working.”

I flinched internally. I knew exactly which show she was referring to: an ex-CIA officer who had been burned and started picking up investigation cases on the side, using his finely-honed skillset. “P, it’s not that easy.”

“Nothing ever is, but it’s a thought.”

“Yeah. But…”

Parker’s eyes went over my shoulder, and I could tell she was turning over possibilities and complications in that whip-smart brain of hers. “V, listen to me,” she said finally. “You yourself just admitted you have an eight-year hole in your resume. Working for yourself is almost your only option at this point.”

I couldn’t argue with that. “Yeah?”

“So do what you can, and use what you have. Watching you work yesterday was mind-blowing. You can’t throw away an entire career of experience.”

“I’m not thrilled about it either, trust me. But…” I shrugged.

“And here you’re supposed to be the smart one,” she teased. “Since all three of us need gainful employment, I vote that we open our own detective agency. You’re the brains, I’m obviously the beauty, and Gran is our hired muscle.”

We both laughed at that, and I felt a little of the stress that had been pinching my shoulders ease. I’d done the right thing by coming home, by letting Parker put me back together. “That does sound like a television show. Or maybe we should aim higher, for Hollywood.”

“I’ll ask Gran to write our pitch letter tonight, then.” Her smile grew wider. “Honestly, though, that would be incredible. We could offer tiers of services…all the way from finding out if your man is cheating on you, to actually tossing his stuff in a dumpster. We’re a full-service team.”

“Yes to the first part, but the second part could get us arrested.”

“Hmm, forgive me if I’m not feeling too guilty about that. God, how could I have been so blind for so long?”

I leaned across the table and squeezed her hand. “Maybe it was a recent thing. Why would he have stayed with you for so long otherwise?”

“You knew from the start, though.”

I knew I had to choose my words carefully. “P, I didn’t like him personally. Plenty of people don’t get along on a personal level. I didn’t know that he would have done this. There’s no way I would have kept something like that from you.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that you knew all along…I just don’t know how I couldn’t have picked up on it sooner.”

“You did,” I reminded her. “I could pull up the exact date and time of the Skype logs when you implied something was off. You loved him. That makes it easy to assume you’re just going through a rough patch.”

“Don’t let me do that ever again, okay? If your douchebag detector goes off on anyone I bring home ever again, let me know.”

“That’s an easy promise to make.” I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “So word on the street is that you need a roommate. Can I skip the application process and just move right in?”

“Well, I don’t know…” Parker twirled the pink-tipped ends of her blond ponytail around her finger. “You’re not bringing any kitchen appliances, electronics, or hot single brothers to this relationship, I’ll have to think it over. Duh, dumbass, of course you’re moving in with me.”


After lunch, without even having to ask, Parker drove us to Magnolia Cemetery, where both Matthew and Sarah Chase were buried. She put the car in park, and we sat in silence for a moment before I took a deep breath and broke it.

“P…I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she said softly. “You being here wouldn’t have prevented it. And she was so proud of you…she had your ‘service record’ memorized down to the tiniest detail, and she bragged about it all the time. She told you to ‘keep your butt on base,’ remember?”

“How could I forget that conversation?” I tried to make my words light, but my fingernails were digging into my jean-clad thighs. P and I were both orphans now…although she had the comfort of knowing where her parents were buried, and I didn’t know if mine were alive or dead and didn’t really care. “Thank God for Gran.”

“Amen to that. You okay?”

I forced myself to unclench my fingers. “Yes.”

She did the best thing she could have, which was to open her door and get out, giving me a chance to pull myself together. I was in worse shape than I thought.

Come on Carmichael, things are always going to be harder before they get easier. Pull it together.

I took a deep breath and opened my door, stepping out into the hot Charleston sunshine. Cicadas buzzed around us as I followed Parker along the path that we were both all too familiar with, weaving around headstones until we reached a pretty area that overlooked the lagoon. Sarah had taken a lot of comfort from the location when Parker and I went with her, visiting the final resting place of a man who’d been ripped out of our lives way too soon.

It had been long enough that the grass around Sarah’s headstone matched that of her husband’s, the only thing that gave away the twenty years between the burials was the headstones. Matthew’s was still in wonderful condition, of course, but you could tell it had been there longer, exposed to the elements, for far longer than his wife’s.

Parker and I both knelt and, as one, split the bouquets we’d each bought from a street vendor outside the seafood restaurant. Half for both graves, one mixed bouquet for each of them. Parker looked lost in thought and I was too.

After a moment, I reached out and ran my fingers over the engraved letters. Parker had opted for a headstone that matched her father’s in style and content, although I could imagine that Sarah had had a say in it before she passed. Having your husband die seven years into your marriage probably gave you a more realistic sense of mortality.

“V?”

“Hmm?” I jerked myself away from my morbid thoughts.

“I was thinking about it on the way over here, and…I’m not really sure that I want to stay here.”

I blinked, confused, not sure if she was referring to the cemetery or something else. “Stay where, specifically?”

“Charleston.” Parker made a tiny adjustment to the flowers on her mother’s grave before sitting back. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually. I was going to talk to you about it the next time we had time to…I tried to talk about it with Shane but that obviously doesn’t matter anymore.”

I felt another stab of guilt. “Okay.”

“I can’t even drive within a few blocks of where my dad died. I just can’t, I’ve never been able to. And now with my mom gone…there’s not really anything to keep me here, you know? I mean, aside from Gran, obviously. But this city doesn’t have a hold on me anymore. And I don’t really think I can move on until I reset myself, start somewhere new. It’s not like I have anything planned, but…” she let out her breath in a long sigh. “I think all this shit with Shane was the kick in the ass that I needed. Everything here reflects the past. I need to move on, but I don’t think I can as long as I’m here. Does that make sense?”

More than she knew. “Yes. Do you know where you want to go?”

“No. All this happened in the past few days, and all I know is that I don’t want to have to avoid the street where my dad died for the rest of my life. I don’t want to worry that I’ll cross paths with Shane. This town is way too small, so it’s bound to happen.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

“I don’t know, I just can’t stay here if I want to get over everything, you know? It’ll always be here if I want to come back and visit but…” Parker pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, resting her cheek on skin that had bruises from leading her self-defense night classes. “Everything is coming together at the same time. I’m losing my job. Gran is being evicted from her florist shop. You’re home for good. I think you were right that it’s a sign. At the same time, though, I can’t imagine leaving you or Gran behind. So I guess I’m just being selfish…or it’s wishful thinking.”

“You’re assuming neither of us would want to go with you.”

She swallowed hard. “You want to start over somewhere else?”

“I have as much tying me here as you do. Nothing, except Gran. As long as you don’t want to leave the country for a while, I’m game to go with you.”

“I guess we just need to decide where we’re going, then?”

I thought back over the last eight years of my life, all the places I’d visited or passed through. “If there’s one thing my job taught me, it’s that sometimes it’ll land in your lap. Tomorrow let’s sit down and start making it reality.”

She nodded, then twisted her wrist to check her watch. “Shoot, we’d better get going if we want to hit the mall for you before we head over to Gran’s.”

I fussed over the flowers on Sarah’s grave one last time, mentally thanking the woman who’d been more of a mother to me than my own biological one. Parker was right; her parents weren’t here any longer, and I didn’t want to run into mine by accident either. We’d both grown up here, but living overseas during my most formative adult years had cut all the ties that would have held me here.

Moving on would be the best way to start my life over, and I could only imagine doing it with my best friend by my side.




Gran still lived in the same house that her husband had brought her to as a newlywed, and it was more familiar to me than my own childhood home. Bougainvillea spilled over the garden walls, but it was trimmed back to showcase the riot of other gorgeous flowers that could be seen both in and outside of the house. Gran’s talent with flowers was an artless elegant thing, one that had landed her in the pages of Southern Living and Better Homes and Gardens. It was a gift that both Sarah and Parker had inherited.

Me, on the other hand? I could wilt a flower by just looking at it the wrong way, like a vampire. All of the plants I’d left behind in my Bulgarian apartment had been fake, to my landlady’s despair.

In the lazy comfort of Gran’s backyard, stuffed full of her amazing cooking, listening to her sweet drawl chirp away as she caught me up on all the latest news, I was more relaxed than I’d been in a very long time. I was slightly drowsy from the two glasses of wine I’d allowed myself, and the drone of the cicadas had faded in the twilight. Despite my resolve to move on wherever Parker wanted us to go, I’d miss the South. It was home to more wonderful memories with the Chase family than bad ones with my own, and I’d never fully acclimated to the winters of Russia and Bulgaria, or even the chilly dampness of Scotland. In Gran’s backyard, the eight years away melted slightly and blurred around the edges.

I guess it was true that you could take the girl out of the South, but you could never take the South out of the girl.

When Gran switched the topic to her flower shop and its impending closure, I forced myself to pay closer attention.

“And oh, I’m just not sure what to do. I’m no spring chicken, and most people would tell me that it’s a sign that I should retire and enjoy myself.” Gran sighed. “But I don’t want to retire. I love what I do. I’ve had a few attorneys approach me offering to rent space in these new developments, but I…”

Parker sat up abruptly in her chair. “Gran, you didn’t…”

“Well of course not, sweetpea, I can smell a rat from a mile away and they were all rats. Imagine Black-Eyed Susans squeezed in between a pizza chain and a cell phone store.” She shuddered, and I knew exactly what she meant. Her shop was a downtown fixture, surrounded by other small shops like it, and she had to be one of the few flower shops in the area that did a brisk walk-in impulse purchase trade. Her magnolia corsages were especially popular with tourists, and Charleston’s old money families didn’t even consider ordering from anyone else. She’d already mentioned that she’d had multiple offers from them to fund her shop opening in another location, but Gran was as proud as they came. She might only be ten cents short of being able to purchase her own new building outright, but that was all it would take.

I exchanged a quick glance with Parker, and a corner of her mouth curled up before she leaned toward her grandmother. “Gran, would you be willing to reopen somewhere else if Vivian and I went in with you on it? She and I both are both going to be unemployed, and we agree it would be better to meet it head on.”

“Hmm, what did you have in mind?” Gran’s question was cautious, but I knew that she trusted both of us implicitly.

“With you in charge of the flowers, it would be a complete success. I’ve helped you out for years and Vivian…”

“I’ll be the delivery driver,” I inserted quickly, and all three of us laughed ruefully.

“Oh Vivian, I’m sure there’s a green thumb inside of you somewhere, we just have to find it!”

“It’s been in hiding for almost thirty years,” I replied wryly. “I think delivery driver is a much safer choice when it comes to risk assessment.”

“Well of course I’d rather go into business with you two than some slumlord rat…but where were you thinking? I can’t afford any of the storefronts downtown now.”

“We were thinking about looking outside of Charleston,” Parker offered carefully. Gran had lived her entire life in Charleston, and had seventy-six years of reasons to want to stay. “Both Viv and I agree that starting over fresh would be better for both of us.”

Gran’s gaze swung over to me just before she tucked her chin down, bright blue eyes sharp. “Hmm…I can see that, dearie.”

“But we understand if you wouldn’t want to leave,” I started, only to have Gran wave her napkin at me.

“Vivian Carmichael, you two girls are the only family I have left in this world. If you think I’m going to let you take off and leave me here, then you’ve both got another think coming. Family is what really matters, not shops or houses or this dreadful bridge club I keep forcing myself to go to. No, I think if you two are going to start off on an adventure of your own, then I’d better go along with you.”


Things happened faster than any of us had dared to believe was possible. While Parker and Gran focused on selling everything from Black-Eyed Susan’s that could raise capital, I dove into online searches and analytics, looking for a place where we knew we could replicate the success Gran had had in Charleston. It was in an online social network group for florists where I found exactly what I was looking for: a shop that was going out of business due to inept management rather than lack of demand. It had been the pet project for a group of bored housewives only two hours away, in downtown Savannah, a business that gave them a reason to network and have champagne socials once a week rather than focus on any actual increase in income. There weren’t any real competitors nearby, and it was being sold with all the expensive equipment they’d dumped into it.

It really was fate. The trophy wives were moving on to form their own yogilates studio, and were only too happy to offload what they’d so quickly grown bored with. Two and a half weeks into our search, the three of us drove to Savannah to sign the closing paperwork, speeding to our new property after Gran handed over a hefty check that all three of us had contributed to.

“I’m in love,” Parker sang, throwing her head back and twirling around in the empty shop.

“It really is gorgeous,” I admitted. The front windows were enormous, just begging for displays of Gran and Parker’s work, and the off-white walls and hardwood floor gave the entire shop an incredibly stylish yet mellow down-home feel.

“Joseph brought me here for our honeymoon,” Gran sighed happily. “I always did have a soft spot in my heart for coastal Georgia. Now, Parker, you show me how to use this fancy camera so I can take pictures and start planning where everything will go.”

Their voices faded behind me as I wandered into the back room. A cute little bathroom, functional office, tons of storage, and…a gun safe? Interesting…I’d read over the paperwork in excruciating detail, and I didn’t remember that little detail being mentioned.

“Gran?”

“Yes sweetpea?” She bustled in behind me. “Oh how perfect, a nice wide door, probably right out onto the loading dock. Now I’ve got the keys for both the delivery vans they left, so we can move them over to that nice attorney’s office for now.”

“Uh-huh. P, do you have the pictures they sent us?”

“Yeah, I tucked them in with all the other paperwork. Why, what’s up?”

I pointed at the metal behemoth hulking in the corner. “Do you remember anything about them leaving an arsenal?”

“Definitely not.” Parker cocked her head curiously. “Where the hell do you think that came from?”

“Oh, I just bet one of those floozies hid her husband’s guns in there,” Gran fretted. “He didn’t want to get rid of them, so she probably stashed them here.”

Snickering a little at the idea of any of the trophy wife florists stashing a loaded gun safe in the back of their flower shop, I examined it carefully. “Maybe we’re not giving them enough credit. Maybe they were money launderers. There could be piles of dirty money in here.”

“Well we own it now, lock, stock and barrel.” Parker peeked over my shoulder as I tried the solid handle. It turned easily in my hand, and I swung it open.

“Sorry to disappoint, ladies, but it’s empty. No cash, no guns. I think Gran’s guess is probably closest…they wanted to get rid of it because it didn’t match the drapes, so they viewed their shop as a dumpster. I wonder what else we’ll run across in this place?”

“Vivian, do you think we can sell it?”

“If we can get the combination, sure.” I peered around the interior thoughtfully, then pointed at the numbers scrawled on a sticker pasted to the inside wall. “Voilà. I wonder if we should keep it, though.”

“What in the world for?”

I shrugged, already assessing what size and type of shop-defense weapon we could keep in the safe. “We won’t have to rent a safe-deposit box at the bank if we keep it. Hell, it’s practically big enough to be a panic room if we get robbed.”

“If you think so,” Gran murmured. “Maybe we ought to think about buying a shotgun, then.”

I don’t know which one of us was more stunned, me or Parker.

“What? I’m no fool, I know that any no-good within spitting distance of this place would view us as an easy target to knock over. Who would suspect the sweet little lady behind the register was actually packing heat?”

“Oh my God,” Parker choked. “First of all, Vivian would take out anyone stupid enough to mess with her…”

“Well, I was referring to myself, sweetpea. Now that I think about it, we ought to look at getting a security system installed. With a panic button under the front counter. I won’t always have the two of you around to toss out any low-lifes that try to start something with me.” She nodded briskly. “Oh, look at that office! I’ll have that set up in no time. We’ll move the desk against the other wall, though, and…”

Gran started snapping pictures of her soon-to-be dream office, and Parker and I exchanged incredulous looks before she shook her head and jotted down security system on the list she’d started. “I really need to stop underestimating her.”

“You and me both. I agree with her, though…a security system would be a good idea. Shops that do a lot of cash business are viewed as quick and easy targets. I’d feel better about her being here alone from time to time if we knew there was a panic button and a security camera or two. Or three.”

“Hey, that’s your area of expertise, so you’re the boss there. Do you think she was serious about the shotgun?”

“Yes, and I agree with that too.”

Parker nodded; she and I both had been taught how to safely handle guns when we were in high school. Then all of the advanced training I’d received at the hands of the U.S. Government, of course. I was about to head out back to check out the vans when Parker let out a loud snort of laughter.

“What?”

“Oh, I totally just thought of the name for the shop,” she snickered. “It just named itself.”

“What’s that?” I asked, echoed by Gran, who had wandered back over to us.

“Pistils. Get it? Three pistol-packing ladies playing with their stamens and…pistils.”

Gran got it faster than I did, naturally, then she started chuckling too. “Oh Parker…you’ve always had a way with words. That’s just perfect!”

Parker shook her head, still laughing. “No Gran, I’m totally kidding. It’ll be Black-Eyed Susans, just like your old shop.”

“This isn’t my old shop,” Gran said firmly, trying and failing to cover her smile. “This is our new shop…and I think Pistils will do just fine.”

Chapter Two


“If we ever do this again,” Parker groaned, dropping the last box onto one of the stacks surrounding us, “We are hiring movers. Preferably hot ones, so we can ogle them and drink wine while they do the hard work.”

I laughed breathlessly, carefully setting down the box of glassware I’d carried in. “Agreed. But just think of how much money we saved.”

“Stop ruining my hot sweaty mover fantasy with your practical words, Vivian Carmichael.” She put her hands to the small of her back and stretched. “Ooooh, we’re going to feel this tomorrow.”

Relocating and starting a new business was expensive, so we’d decided to move ourselves and Gran instead of paying the insane price we’d been quoted for professional help. It had taken a week to pack up everything in Parker’s apartment and Gran’s little house, including the small amount of my own personal items that I’d left in Gran’s spare room. Loading and the drive had been the easy part, unloading was not. Gran had fretted about us working too hard until we banished her to the shop with instructions to start calling in supplies. We were planning to open for business in two weeks, as long as all our licensure and tax information was squared away in time.

“And we still have to unpack,” I said ruefully. “Let’s go rent a room in a hotel for the night. Preferably one with a jacuzzi.”

Parker’s eyes brightened. “Yeah?”

“I’d totally be down for it, but I have a feeling that Gran would somehow know, and we’d come back here in the morning to find she spent all night unpacking and putting everything away for us.”

She groaned. “You’re so right, she would. Well let’s go turn the truck in, I’ll follow you and we can pick up Gran and grab something for dinner on the way back. Chinese?”

“Always.”

“Did they have Chinese restaurants in Sofia?”

“Yeah, and it wasn’t half-bad, believe it or not. My landlady was always making home-cooked meals for me, though, so I didn’t have to resort to takeout terribly often.”

“Is Bulgarian food good?” I could tell she was curious, any time I offered up any information about my life there, she zeroed in on the details.”

“It’s delicious.” I tossed her the keys she’d been looking for. “Let’s hit the road.”


Five hours later, we lay sprawled on our new couch in our new apartment, still surrounded by unpacked boxes. We’d eaten our takeout dinner at Gran’s new cottage and then made her promise repeatedly that she wouldn’t try to unpack anything remotely heavy without us there. We’d set up her bed, put the boxes of essential items in spots where she wouldn’t have to bend or lift to get at the contents, and then dragged our sorry carcasses home.

It said a lot about my level of exhaustion that I didn’t turn down the vodka shot that Parker handed me. “To success in starting over at life,” she offered, clinking her glass against mine.

“I’ll drink to that,” I replied tiredly, before bolting the shot. She held up the bottle with her eyebrows raised and I shook my head. “We really are starting over.”

“Gran is totally lapping us,” she chuckled, pouring herself another shot. We’d arrived at Pistils to discover Gran hadn’t just put in our first supply orders, she’d also reached out to our first customers: friends and family of the Charleston population that had been so sad to see her go. She’d already booked us two weddings and multiple pre-orders for birthdays and anniversaries. We’d also gained almost a thousand Facebook followers in one day. It was insane.

“Yeah she is. I guess we won’t have to worry about whether or not the shop is going to be a success. I heard her say something about calling the newspaper social page editor too. Those Richie Riches love our Gran.”

I smiled. Gran was definitely a sharp businesswoman, but she had a heart of gold too. We both knew that any child who had entered Black Eyed Susan’s left clutching a free flower or two, and Gran had always made corsages and boutonnieres come prom-time for any high-schooler that couldn’t afford them. All they had to do was come into the shop and ask, and she’d tell them to come back day-of, no proof of income needed. It was a trait that she’d definitely passed on to her daughter and granddaughter.

“I vote that we call it quits for the night. We can unpack and then start looking for jobs tomorrow.” Both Parker and I had agreed that Gran should be Pistils’ only full-time employee until we had a better idea of what business would be like. The outlook was considerably better than just twenty-four hours before, but we didn’t want to chance it.

Plus, being financially conservative gave us an excuse to share an apartment. It was common sense as we knew one of us would always be at the other’s place anyway, and Parker had found us a deal we couldn’t pass on: our new apartment was close to Pistils, close to Gran, and came with appliances plus the utilities included in the rent. After I ran my own background check on the owner and looked for any speck of shadiness connected to the complex, we’d rented our new home.

Parker hummed an agreement to my words, then tugged her hair out of its disheveled ponytail. “Have you thought any more about what you want to do?”

“I’ve got some ideas rolling around in my head.” I don’t know why I bothered to fib, she saw right through me.

“Want some suggestions?”

“Sure.”

“Well, let me tell you some of what you’re good at…I would suggest bodyguard, language tutor, or travel guide.”

I shuddered. “Cross that last one off, too many bad memories.”

“Hacker for hire is still an option.”

“No, definitely not. I’m not as good as you think I am.”

“I saw how good you are, don’t be modest.”

“I’m not. What you saw me do is just scratching the surface of what a real hacker can do…if I’d followed a different career track while I was there, that would be one thing. I was more of a HUMINT type.”

“What the heck is that?”

“Gathering information from actual people, you know, one-on-one. As opposed to gathering it with technology. So essentially I got basic training, like Hacker 101, but nothing advanced.” Ah, memories.

She shrugged. “It’s not like people would be hiring you to hack into the Pentagon…or at least, I hope not. You could handle stuff like you did for me…getting into a cheating boyfriend’s email.”

“Although I would have no moral issues about doing it, some of what I’d probably be asked to do is illegal. I don’t want you to have to shake down Gran for bail money for me.”

“Bail bondsman? As employment, not to get you out of jail. Repo-woman?”

“Parker, you’re killing me,” I groaned. “I do not want to be a repo-woman.”

“But you’d be so good at it! Even when we were kids, you just had a sixth sense about things. You knew where to go and what to do…you always found the most eggs at Gran and Papa’s Easter egg hunt.”

“Can I put that on my resume?”

She let out an exasperated huff. “Hey, whatever floats your boat. What do you want to do?”

“Honestly? To get some cash right off the bat, I’ll probably do some language tutoring. While I keep looking for a job with health insurance.”

“How many languages do you speak now?”

“Fluently or passably?”

“Umm, enough to get us around on another country on vacation.”

“Eight.”

What?

I laughed again. “I included English on that list. Fluently, five. I can curse like a sailor in the other three if that counts, and I could definitely get us around those countries on vacation.”

“Jesus, V, what do they put in the water up there at MIT?”

“Caffeine.”

She shook her head slowly. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Parker, ya vtomyvsya.”

“Did you just curse me out?”

I laughed shortly and started to stand. “It means ‘I’m tired’ in Ukrainian.”

“Uh-huh, I knew it. No caffeine in the water, Carmichael stalls out.” Parker slowly stood too, then reached over to give me a tight hug. “Hey, if you ever want to want to talk about when you learned Ukrainian, I promise not to tell anyone.”

“I know you wouldn’t.” I squeezed her back. “I’m just not ready to yet. Someday. Just not yet.”

“All right roomie, I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

“Good night.” Bed and sleep had never seemed so incredibly seductive. All our new furniture had been delivered that morning with the apartment manager’s oversight, but I realized with a silent groan that I still had to make the bed. Gran had been in charge of packing the boxes of Day One Necessities and Essentials, or DONE, as Parker had rightly predicted we’d be. Luckily I wouldn’t have to dig around for pajamas or toothpaste, but those freshly laundered sheets wouldn’t jump on the bed by themselves.

I gave Parker another hug as we parted ways at her bedroom door, only steps from my own. They couldn’t have looked more different. Parker’s was packed full of boxes, bags and personal items, belongings kept from childhood right up through her recent split with Shane. Mine had exactly eight boxes, including the DONE care package. I stood eyeing the room, thinking that it really resembled an Army barracks, except that I’d caved to Parker and ordered a queen-sized bed instead of…

Have you got room in your bed for two?”

Your bed in Sofia is barely big enough for one, and we made that work.”

I flinched against the doorframe as though the memory had been a bullet. I wasn’t ready to think about David, not yet. I’d kept myself too busy to think, busy enough to ward off thoughts that would only hurt; I’d never mentioned him again to Parker. But now it felt as though I’d left him there by the Potomac only seconds ago, still with enough time to turn around and agree to what I knew we both wanted more than anything.

And I’d be a liar if I said there weren’t moments I’d regretted not turning back around. Those were the bad nights, when I muffled the sobs that I didn’t want Parker to hear. God, I missed him so much.

Tears were trying to work their way up, but I forced them back down. I’d become something of an expert at controlling my tear ducts, I could flip them on and off like a light bulb…but only when there weren’t real emotions involved.

And tonight, the switch apparently wasn’t working right. It had to be the vodka. Jesus, pull yourself together.

The burner phone was a bump in my back pocket. I knew Parker had seen it, just as I’d noticed her look of surprise when I suggested we duck into the cell phone store at the mall where I’d dropped almost a grand on a brand-new high-tech smartphone right after I got back. But she didn’t ask questions, because she knew that I’d tell her when I was ready…if I ever was.

I took a deep breath and stood straight, then crossed the room, digging into the DONE box and making my bed with clinical efficiency. I could hear Parker still rummaging around, so I took a quick shower before heading back into my new room, killing the light on the way in. Gran had gifted me with a bedside table from her spare room, and I set the phone on top of it after checking the battery status. “Keep it on, all the time.”

I considered and then rejected the idea of pajamas, instead climbing under the sheets before burying my face in the pillow, forcing my eyes to shut.

Okay Carmichael, there you go. You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.

Chapter Three


Pistils was, in no uncertain terms, an overnight hit in Savannah. One month after we officially opened, business was brisk enough to budget in both myself and Parker a part-time salary. Not only had Gran’s social contracts bloomed into smashing success, but the trophy wife former owners I’d been so quick to dismiss turned out to be more valuable to us than anything else. It may have been due to nostalgia initially, but after an order or two, those women validated us in Savannah. They didn’t just patronize Pistils themselves, they actively starting referring business our way in addition to the thrice-weekly standing order they had for a gigantic arrangement to grace the front desk of their new yogilates studio. They got so many questions about the flowers that they finally gave up and asked Gran for a stack of business cards to sit discreetly next to the vase.

They were all gone within two days.

Gran was in her element. She was working with flowers, the thing she loved best in the world after Parker and me. She charmed the men who came in or called to order for their wives, girlfriends and mistresses, inevitably up-selling them on orders with her sweet voice. Women loved her because she’d be honest, but kind…Now I love that flower too, but dearie, I think that yellow just wouldn’t do justice to that gorgeous skin of yours, not to mention that hair! And just as in Charleston, she was handing out free flowers to kids left and right.

It was enough to make the accountant we’d contracted sheepishly admit that he would suspect us of cooking the books if his wife and sister hadn’t already mentioned seeing one of Gran’s arrangements while out on the town somewhere. My offhand comment about stashing cash in the inherited gun safe came to fruition as we started keeping petty cash in there, right next to the old Mossberg shotgun I’d picked up at a flea market. I’d cleaned and tested it repeatedly myself before taking Gran and Parker to the range to make sure they were comfortable with it there.

Parker was in seventh heaven too. She’d picked up an afternoon job at a mental-health clinic, and when she wasn’t there she was at the shop, putting flowers together in a way that I’d never think of myself, but always sold out immediately. I did my part where I knew it would be best utilized: writing out the cards to accompany the orders that streamed in via phone, website and our new app, making deliveries, calling in supply orders, cleaning and locking up the shop every night. It might have driven other people crazy, but I welcomed the repetitive tasks, because it kept the stress and eventual anxiety at bay.

I’d also picked up some language tutoring jobs that paid quite well thanks to Gran (Well isn’t he clever! Russian too? You know, our Vivian speaks Russian fluently and is tutoring students on a limited number of…why yes! I can schedule something right here from the shop!), and I was grateful for it, but the peace I’d bought myself was starting to wear thin.

The burner phone never rang, and I didn’t know whether I wanted it to or not.

And this was not what I wanted to do with my life.

I wasn’t ashamed or resentful. Until the day I died, I’d owe Gran and Parker for finding enough work around Pistils to allow me to justify drawing a paycheck. But the itch that had been triggered under my skin, in a hotel room in Cambridge so many years ago, had only receded a little bit while my soul licked its wounds and started to heal. I’d found what I was meant to do while working for the CIA, and even as I cringed to think about it, I knew that it was also what I really wanted to do.

Not for all the money in the world would I have ever gone back to them, but the hunt, the slow and methodical cultivation…now I could understand why some people loved building ships in a bottle.

That was me…I needed that delicate dance between partners, the build-up, the goal…knowing that if I did my job correctly, it would result in the most satisfying of outcomes…a ship in a bottle.

A mobster in prison.

Ships in bottles, mobsters in prison…are they really that different? One good smash and there’s going to be hell to pay, not to mention a big mess.

In addition to my restlessness, I’d developed a heightened sense of paranoia. I’d be a fool to think that the CIA wasn’t keeping tabs on me in some fashion, even if it was assigning rookie officers to track my movements, or passing it off to the FBI. I resented it, but more for Gran and Parker than for me…the first time Parker introduced me to a really cute guy that she’d met, my immediate thought snapped to the realization that his name and personal information was probably being dutifully logged somewhere, and it was all because of me.

And every single day, I thought about David.

Gran and Parker weren’t stupid, they could see that I wasn’t happy. After the initial bloom fell from the rose, so to speak, Gran started fretting over me more. Parker would start to ask me something and then bite her tongue. I didn’t know what to tell them or even what to say. Maybe I was that ship in a bottle, except that I wanted to violently rebel against the glass around me. My guilt over making them worry only made things worse.


We’d been in business for seven months and fourteen days when the seas got stormy…but not in a bad way. Sometimes ships need a rogue wave to smash them out of the bottle.

It was an unexpectedly busy afternoon…one of Savannah’s city council members had passed away unexpectedly, and we had condolence bouquet orders pouring in. We’d flipped the sign to Closed, but as we had a few pick-up orders for the afternoon, we didn’t lock the door. I was filling out the millionth condolence note when she tripped through the door. Mrs. Rockingham.

Or as I preferred to think of her, Patient Zero.

She’d barely cleared the entrance before she burst into tears, and Parker and I exchanged glances. She’d proven repeatedly to be the best one to deal with emotional types. I was excellent at superficial customer service, but I had little patience for anyone who went to pieces in front of others like that. It probably said a lot about my state of mind at that moment.

“Something red, blood red,” Mrs. Rockingham…Trish, as she’d told us to call her, sniffled. “That bitch! I want him to know that I know!”

“All right then,” Gran soothed. “What’s the…ah, occasion?”

Trish dabbed at her nose and Parker handed her a tissue. “I’ve thought for a long time now that my husband was having an affair. For about the past four months, maybe? You just don’t want to…you know? I didn’t want to think it was possible! We have three children! But the housekeeper found a pair of panties in one of our guest rooms, and I…” She burst into full-on tears.

Despite our busy afternoon, the walk-in traffic had been surprisingly light. At Gran’s subtle gesture, I eased over and locked the front door. It was a thoughtful tactic, to keep anyone from walking in off the street and seeing one of Savannah’s most famous society-wives crying her eyes out about the man that did her wrong. Gran stroked her shoulder.

“Oh, we’ve all been there at some point, dearie. Why don’t you take a seat here on this stool and tell us what happened? Let it all out, you’ll feel better.”

Trish was only too happy to oblige. Details that she’d die before admitting to her socialite friends boiled up…his unexplainable irritation, his repeated absences and late nights at work, the faint puff of another woman’s perfume when she leaned in for a kiss.

“But I’m afraid I’m going to look like a psycho!” she finally wailed.

“Oh honey, why? Based on what you told us, no one would blame you!”

“The court won’t take any of that into account,” she replied bitterly. “Our pre-nup specified ‘proof or admission of infidelity’ and none of what I just told you is proof! I quit my job for him! He said that I would never have to worry about any of those things, that he wanted me to stay home and take care of our kids if that’s what made me happy. And look where that got me!”

“Oh honey…I’m so sorry. You don’t have any hard evidence?”

“No, none. What am I supposed to do, go in front of the judge and claim women’s intuition? I’d look like a freak!”

“Have you thought about having someone, ah, get hard evidence?” Parker asked carefully.

“Well I…yes! But what am I supposed to do? Call one of those people that advertise during trashy afternoon television? They’d probably run right to him and…no. I’d rather die of shame than have my family’s name dragged through the mud like that. I just…I don’t know what to do!” Here she broke into a fresh round of wailing.

Parker and Gran exchanged glances over the woman’s heaving shoulders.

“I…well, I apologize if I’m being indelicate, but I have a suggestion,” Gran said slowly. “I know someone that can get that ‘hard evidence’ for you, if there is any. She is extremely discreet. No one will need to know until you’re nailing that cheating bastard to the wall in court.”

All of my oh-shit detectors went off right then and there, but Parker was already falling into line, and she nodded to Gran, who immediately bent back over the woman’s shoulders. “Would you like us to have her call you?”

“Are you…is she…I just can’t afford to have this get out! Maybe it would be better if I just…”

“Oh dearie, don’t you worry about that a bit. She’ll find out, and she’ll give you the honest truth, whether you want to hear it or not. Because you’re tearing yourself to pieces thinking about it, and that’s not good for you or your beautiful babies.”

She nodded slowly. “I know, you’re right. I’m so sorry, bursting in on you like this, please just forget I said anything.”

“Now forgive me for being rather bald about this, but do you really think that’s the best thing to do? If he’s acting the way you described, you already know that something isn’t right.”

Her face started to crumple again. “I know. I just can’t afford to let this get out.”

“Well then let me suggest this…why don’t I ask her to look into it? If she doesn’t find anything, then that’s the end of it. If she does…well, she can give you that information and you can do what you want with it.”

Trish’s shoulders sagged. “Please…I can’t tell you enough that I can’t afford to have this get out. If he or anyone else found out, he’d bury me before I even had a chance to find a lawyer to take my case.”


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